Tools of the trade …

Building synthesiser modules has a lot in common with writing software – it is important to do one thing and do it well, and having the correct tools for the job is a definite bonus too.

Here’s a brief rundown of the stuff that I use …

Solder and soldering tools

Solder: 0.25mm on the left, 0.5mm on the right.

It took a while, but I now use lead-free solder almost exclusively nowadays – whilst it has a reputation of being a pain to work with, given a good quality soldering iron (see below) then it’s almost as easy to work with as traditional 60:40 leaded solder.

I generally keep two diameters in stock – 0.5mm for ‘general’ or through-hole use and 0.25mm for surface-mount or very small PTH components. The 0.5mm is also handy for doing ‘bigger’ stuff like power jacks.

Solder removal is important, too – screwups are bound to happen

and it’s good to be able to unscrew them. For these we have a solder sucker and a reel of desoldering braid, which is basically copper braid containing flux – it wicks the solder away from a joint.

Solder sucker and desoldering braid.

A word of warning about ‘cheap’ desoldering braid off eBay – don’t bother. This is one of the few occasions where buying a known brand will save a lot of hassle – various widths are available, but I find that 2mm covers most of the bases (I use this) although I keep a small reel of 1mm around just in case I need it.

Flux

You really can’t do SMD soldering without flux – granted, most solder contains flux already but in the sort of diameters that you’d use for soldering surface-mount components (I use 0.25mm) there’s not a great deal of flux in there and sometimes you need a bit extra to encourage the solder to flow where it is needed.

Flux – with brush applicator

Flux pens have their adherents, and it’s the sort of thing that’s handy to have but I much prefer a liquid flux in a bottle complete with a brush applicator. This is personal preference – if you want to use a flux pen, knock yourself out. However, realise that you almost invariably will need extra flux for SMD soldering jobs (and it’s handy for removing solder, too)

The stuff that I use is Topnik TK83 – available on eBay (other online emporia are available)

 

Work lamp

Work lamp – kind of essential.

Whilst it helps to have a work area which has good access to natural light (my workbench is right by the window in my spare bedroom) sometimes you need a bit of extra illumination. I use an LED desk lamp which I purchased from Hobbycraft (this one) – it doesn’t take up a lot of desk space, gives nice, flat illumination and is also portable.

It serves double duty when I need extra illumination for photos, too.

Of course, you don’t have to spend money on a ‘dedicated’ work lamp – anything with a bulb will do the job, although it helps immensely if the head of the lamp can be adjusted (anglepoise lamps are ideal)

Soldering Station

Soldering station

You can’t really do anything without a soldering iron of some description – if you’re serious about building your own stuff then a good quality, temperature-controlled soldering iron is essential. Even better, you don’t need to spend an absolute fortune or go second-hand unless you absolutely have to.

My weapon of choice is the Tenma 21-10115 digital soldering station from Farnell – it is adjustable between 150 and 450C and practically every bit of it is available as a spare part (everything from spare bits through to heating elements or even a complete new soldering iron). It’s good enough that I actually have two of them – mine gets used pretty much every day and has performed like a champ. For soldering surface-mount components I usually use an 0.5mm chisel tip – it’s very rare that I have to use anything larger.

For £50 or thereabouts it’s an absolute no-brainer.

Hot-air rework station

Hot air rework station

Not strictly necessary, but if you’re doing a lot of SMD work you’re going to need one eventually, whether it’s for salvaging components from old PCBs or realigning SMD components. The one that I use is a non-name station I picked up off eBay for around £25 including shipping.

It is temperature controllable (100-450C) and has variable speed airflow and a selection of three different sized nozzles (6.4mm is the one I use the most. Unlike a lot of models which blow hot air from within the base station, this one has a heater and blower in the handle, which is rather neat.

Time will tell how robust it is – the build quality is certainly very good, and it beats paying over £100 for a ‘name’ brand.

Hand tools

Hand tools are important too – at very least you’re going to need:

Tweezers, pliers, cutters and wire strippers.

  • Wire strippers – the ones I currently use are SparkFun branded and will strip wire from 20AWG down to 30AWG (eg. Kynar wire).
  • Side cutters – for cutting the leads of through-hole components and, of course, wire.
  • Pliers – for bending leads and, well, holding things.
  • Tweezers – essential for SMD work. I’m a big fan of Vetus ESD anti-magnetic tweezers to the point that I have two pairs of the ESD-14s. A pair of ‘reverse action’ tweezers is handy too, especially for holding components in place while you’re soldering them. The use-case for the fine tweezers should be fairly obvious – trying to solder SMD without them will quickly lead to burnt fingers and frustration.

IDC crimpers fall into the ‘nice to have’ category – I like to make my own Eurorack power cables so they’re pretty much essential for me. Since I make my own cables, a ready supply of 10 and 16-pin IDC connectors is rather important too (I usually buy these on bulk off eBay)

 

This is the tool I use.

 

One final word: be prepared to spend a bit of money on your hand tools – cheap stuff is a false economy.

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